The pilot school concept comes to Fitchburg
would you lend ancient Chinese masterpieces to a middle school? Maybe not, but the Sackler Foundation didn’t blink before sending 33 priceless artifacts, among them Chinese Buddhas and tomb figures dating from 2000 BC, for use at Fitchburg’s Museum Partnership School.
“We think that’s a unique situation,” says Roger Dell, education director at the Fitchburg Art Museum, which has been affiliated with the public arts magnet school since it opened in 1995.
The long-term loan by the renowned New York City– based Asian art collection made in August 2005 was just another milestone for the Museum Partnership School. The Fitchburg middle school was already the only one outside the Big Apple to participate in the Lincoln Center’s Focus Schools Collaborative. Under this program, Fitchburg teachers train in New York, then invite a dance, music, or theater group affiliated with the center to perform back home.
inspects an item loaned from
the Sackler Foundation.
First established in Boston in 1995, pilot schools are public schools that get charter school–like management autonomy, but remain part of a local school district, with the blessing of the local teachers’ union. At least, that was the case in Boston until 2004, when Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman blocked the conversion of Allston’s Gardner Elementary School to pilot status, despite approval from the school’s teachers. After protracted negotiations, which resulted in limits to how many hours pilot-school teachers could work, even voluntarily, without additional compensation, the public schools, the teachers’ union, and city officials agreed in February to open seven new pilot schools by 2009, including one that the teachers’ union will run sans principal, a Massachusetts first.
“The pilot idea really came from teachers themselves. This is not a top-down reform that was imposed on resistant faculty or unions,” says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. “It was really a tremendous process of cooperation and thinking that led to this in the mid ’90s, and now it may have the opportunity to reach its full potential.”
Now that’s true in Fitchburg as well as Boston. Fitchburg Superintendent of Schools Andre Ravenelle says the school district, the teachers’ union, and the art museum wanted to formalize the their relationship and give the school more independence. They did so with the help of a $600,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The school now serves 167 fifth- through eighth-grade students but will grow to 200 middle-schoolers plus an arts high school, scheduled to open in 2007, enrolling 100 students each year for four years. That’s a long way from 1995, when two teachers put together small classes at the museum to motivate eight low-performing and truant-prone students who were considered “visual learners.”
The pilot school experiment comes just in time for the 5,700-student Fitchburg Public Schools, which narrowly escaped branding as an “underperforming” district in 2004 and was instead placed on the state’s “watch” list.
Pilots can be the path to improvement for districts like Fitchburg, says Grogan, whose foundation is a major financial supporter of Boston’s pilot schools. Although they have similar management autonomy, pilots have an advantage over Commonwealth charter schools because they remain rooted in the district, benefiting from resources such as transportation, facilities, food services, and legal support, says Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, which works with pilot schools in Boston and now in Fitchburg. According to a January 2006 study by the center, Boston pilot students post higher MCAS scores, head to college in greater numbers, and post higher attendance rates than students in traditional public schools. The 145-school Boston district has 19 pilots enrolling 5,900 children, about 10 percent of the school population.
Getting teachers’ unions, historically hostile to charters, on board is another plus. “The power of the pilot model is that it does require the school district and teachers’ union to enter into a transformed partnership to create an entirely different kind of school,” French says.
Fitchburg Superintendent Ravenelle was previously involved in an effort to create an entire district of Horace Mann charter schools (abandoned, in part, because the state Department of Education looked askance at the plan) when he was superintendent of the Barnstable Public Schools (see “Unchartered Waters,” CW, Fall ’03).
In Fitchburg, Ravenelle, who himself dabbles in pastels, sees the pilot approach as conducive to reaching out to teachers within his district. “Are you an artist? Are you someone who appreciates art, and you’re also a science teacher? How would like to apply for this?” says Ravenelle.
But this is where things get dicey. In addition to signing on to an “election-to-work” agreement outlining school policies that differ from district rules (length of day, professional development responsibilities, additional duties and the like) current arts middle school staff may have to reapply for their jobs—a potentially contentious issue that is unresolved as CommonWealth goes to press.For teachers who brought the school from its infancy, “it’s almost like a slap in the face to be asked to reapply,” says Chad Radock, president of the Fitchburg Teachers Association. Current staff do have relevant program experience, acknowledges Fitchburg Art Museum’s Dell. “But we’re going to have an open process at looking at who are the best teachers for this program,” he says.
Will pilot schools be a hit in Fitchburg? Radock is taking a wait-and-see attitude, but Fitchburg Mayor Dan Mylott is already preparing to boast. “I think what we are going to have is a terrific model for other communities to emulate,” Mylott says.